Too many people think of Paris in terms of museums and clichés; pretty to look at and think about, but not much to do. They think it has nothing unusual to offer – Paris is tame, Paris is old, Paris is unadventurous. I’m always worried when returning that I’ll run out of new things to do and discover just that. But, the secret is to know where to look. Sometimes, adventures might lie just beneath your feet… The Catacombs of Paris are something that everyone must see. These passageways stretch for miles underneath the city, and only a very small section is open to the public, although this in itself allows for a good 30 minute walk. The tunnels were formed from mining for limestone, when Paris began to use this material for its grand buildings. The problem was that no one had really bothered to take note of where the mines were and if they were properly stabilised. This led to several buildings collapsing around the end of the 18th century, and the royal decree that these passageways had to be investigated and stabilised. This investigation began just before another underground problem lead to disaster. The cemeteries in Paris intra muros were overfilling, especially Les Innocents. Cemeteries were being built outside central Paris but not quickly enough. One of the reasons that Père Lachaise had famous folk put in it, was to try and encourage Parisians to put their bodies outside the centre. Eventually, Les Innocents was officially closed when the wall of a property nearby collapsed, because of the pressure exerted upon it by the mass grave. There were too many bones, and the new mapping of the mines meant that there was only one logical conclusion…and that’s how the Catacombs began. At first bones were moved quickly from graveyard to mines, and left in a haphazard manner. But come the 19th century, some clever people started to see a new opportunity. Parisians had already shown an interest in visiting the dead. Behind where Notre Dame stands today, there was once a morgue, and Parisians and tourists paid to visit the unidentified remains. So the Catacombs were transformed into an extravagant mortuary, with bones arranged into pretty patterns, and poetic inscriptions on death displayed among them. The first public visits were in 1814, and the rest is history. It had always been on my to do list, but the fates, and my lack of organisation had been against me. I inevitably either remembered to go during peak tourist season, when the queues were miles long, or I went when the air circulatory system wasn’t working, leading to the tunnels’ closure. Further complications arose because I kept trying to coordinate visits with other people. This morning though, after the previous day of adventures, I was adamant that I was going, and perhaps going alone might let me get better acquainted with the bones and their stories. I took the metro, and took a right at the sortie to make a quick detour to a fabulous boulangerie. When I actually lived in Paris I needed to seriously limit my intake of viennoiserie but not now that I was on holiday! I bought a pain au chocolat aux amandes (you haven’t lived until you’ve had one), and got a free piece of galette des rois as well. With my sustenance and umbrella in hand, I went to join the queue. I love visiting the dead when it’s raining – it just feels right. The queue took about 15 minutes by which time my breakfast was long gone, and after paying for my ticket, I began the long solitary descent into darkness. The air was musty and it was a while of walking through tunnels before the walls of bones appeared. I was shocked at first by the sheer number of them. I thought it might just be a couple of displays, but the 30 minute walk was lined with walls of the dead. I wouldn’t say I became immune to it, but it didn’t feel completely real. I felt distanced from these remains, probably because I didn’t know their stories, and probably because there is something in us all that distances us from death. I found the poetic verses as moving as the bones… or perhaps it was the juxtaposition of the two. My favourite was that pictured above. In English it reads:
It is in this way that all things come to pass on earth,
Spirit, beauty, grace and talent,
Much like ephemeral flours,
Knocked down by the littlest breeze.
I came out of the tunnels 50 minutes later and blinked in the light. I didn’t feel the need to cry, or do anything rash and life affirming, as perhaps I’d hoped I would. I didn’t feel particularly changed…perhaps death felt a little nearer. I walked until I found my bearings, and bought a pair of boots. I took the metro back to Malakoff and bought some bread and clementines. I went back to the house and helped my friend clean it for her birthday party that night.
It was an odd crowd. A Colombian magician, a collection of Sorbonne professors, a student from Singapore and my friend from Nebraska. And me, a Scottish girl who fancies herself part of the new lost generation. We ate and we drank and we danced and we watched card tricks. And we did the same again the next morning. We danced Salsa in the kitchen, clasping cheap champagne, in between cleaning up from the night before.
That night a few of us went ice-skating in the Grand Palais. The biggest ice rink in France, with the largest glass roof in Europe. With a disco ball, strobe light and music, it was gatsby-esque in its extravagance (they even gave us Ferrero Rocher on arrival). It was just a pity that I couldn’t ice skate without tensing every single muscle in my body. Afterwards we took a stroll through the Christmas market by the Champs-Élysées and looked at more pretty lights. Despite emerging from the Catacombs the morning before, I couldn’t help feel that the lights were a little brighter. Perhaps being closer to death (even in that sense), makes you appreciate living a little more than you already did. Paris always has something new, or at least something in new lights…just look for it.